Ec 140 – Fall 2011
“Settling for Par: Pros More Likely to Play It Safe.”
By Alan Schwarz, The New York
June 16, 2009, page B10.
When PGA Tour golfers from Tiger Woods down to the greenest rookie draw back their putters
this week at the United States Open, their scorecards will be sabotaged by a force as human as it
is irrational: risk intolerance.
Even the world’s best pros are so consumed with avoiding bogeys that they make putts for birdie
discernibly less often than identical-length putts for par, according to a coming paper by two
professors at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. After analyzing laser-precise
data on more than 1.6 million Tour putts, they estimated that this preference for avoiding a
negative (bogey) more than gaining an equal positive (birdie) — known in economics as loss
aversion — costs the average pro about one stroke per 72-hole tournament, and the top 20
golfers about $1.2 million in prize money a year.
Contrary to most academic studies involving sports, at which athletes typically scoff, a handful
of the tour’s top putters did not dispute this finding. Simply put — if not putt — they admitted to
being spooked enough by bogeys that they will ultimately cost themselves strokes to avoid them.
Call it the bogeyman.
―Par putts just seem to be more critical because if you miss you drop a shot — if you miss a
birdie putt, it doesn’t seem to have the same effect,‖ said Jim Furyk, one of the tour’s best
Added Justin Leonard: ―When putting for birdie, you realize that, most of the time, it’s
acceptable to make par. When you’re putting for par, there’s probably a greater sense of urgency,
so therefore you’re willing to be more aggressive in order not to drop a shot. It makes sense.‖
Of course, it makes no sense at all: each stroke counts as one on a scorecard, whether for eagle or
triple-bogey on any particular hole. The goal is to finish with the fewest strokes, regardless of
what each might be artificially termed. All else being equal — distance from the cup, one’s
proximity to the lead or cut, the course difficulty and so on — putts should be handled the same
But they are not, according to the study of almost 200 tour professionals from 2004 through
2008. Using data the tour regularly records on every ball’s green location accurate to the nearest
inch, the professors found that birdie putts were made about 3 percent less often than otherwise
identical putts for par. (In effect, players tell themselves before birdie attempts, ―Let’s just get
close,‖ rather than, ―I have to make this.‖) Given that players typically attempt nine birdie putts